Sunday, May 8, 2022
Psalm 23 & John 10:22-30
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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Today is all about belonging. We are welcoming our confirmands to the church. These youth are making the choice to confirm that the promises spoken over them at baptism are now theirs. They belong here. They belong to the church. They are part of the one, big Christian family. We are also celebrating women who have made a special contribution to Presbyterian Women. They will be given lifetime memberships in PW, a symbol of how they belong to this special family of faith. And, of course, it’s Mother’s Day—an annual time of acknowledging how we have had special women in our lives who have cared for us. It’s a day of belonging.

I’m going to focus on what it means to belong, but before I do, I need to give us more of the context for our text in John. Jesus is telling those gathered around him about belonging. Earlier in the chapter Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. Now the crowds surround him, and he makes these statements of belonging. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

In other words, Jesus’ sheep belong to him. They are in his safe care, and they can trust him.

This encounter happens during the festival of Dedication. Today we know this holiday as Hanukkah, which is the Hebrew word for dedication. The context of these words makes this conversation between Jesus and the Jews gathered in the temple loaded.

So, what is Hanukkah? It takes place on the 25th day of the month of Chislev, which roughly overlaps with our month of December. It memorializes events that take place between the end of the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are books written in that timeframe—they’re called apocryphal or intertestamental—that capture the events that are celebrated at Hanukkah. In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem. As the Greek Empire spread, it brought its culture with it. We call this Hellenization. By Jesus’ day Greek is the common language, which is why we’re always talking about the New Testament Greek. It’s the language of the day.

What happens when one culture conquers another? Things change, and this is particularly problematic for religions like Judaism. The temple was a place for worship, a place that was set apart for worshiping a perfect and holy God. But over time the priests at the temple began accommodating and grew corrupt in the eyes of the faithful. As time moves on, how does an invading power assert its authority? They show they have power over the places and things people care about. Greek soldiers saw the temple as one of those places, so they went to work to show that their gods were more powerful than the Lord. They defiled the temple with pig’s blood. They burned scrolls containing Scripture. And most devastating of all, they also put up a pagan idol in the temple.[1]

Actions like this could not stand, so around 150 years into Greek rule, the Jews revolted. It’s called the Maccabean revolution, and the festival of Dedication—that is, Hanukkah—is part of the memorialization of how Judas Maccabaeus rededicated the temple to its holy purposes in 165 B.C.

Here’s how N. T. Wright describes these events. “It was the third winter after the disaster. Many of the people had begun to lose hope that good fortune would return to them. The enemy had come in and trampled all over their lovely city. Many had been killed, many captured. Some of the local people had collaborated with the foreigners, hoping no doubt to secure their favor in case their regime should last a long time.

“But some had never reconciled themselves to the new situation. In particular, the loss of their great and beautiful temple was a shock and an affront. It was, after all, the house of their God, the God of all the world. Now these foreigners were worshipping their own gods there, offering sacrifices that would never have been allowed before. Revolution was brewing, and came to the boil. A sudden attack, a wonderful victory; the tyrant was overthrown, the city liberated.

“Three years to the day after the disaster, they solemnly purified the temple. They offered the proper sacrifices, they lit the lamps, and they prayed to the God of heaven and earth that they might never suffer such a thing again. And they commanded that every year a festival should be kept to commemorate the occasion.”[2]

Judas Maccabaeus wasn’t a descendant of King David, but he started a leadership dynasty that lasted for a hundred years. His descendants were the final political leaders of Israel until the Roman conquering armies rolled through, setting the scene for Jesus’ day. The Jews demand of Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” That is, they want to know if he’s a political and religious leader in the line of David and like Judas Maccabaeus. “Jesus,” they say. “Are you going to be the one to free us from Roman rule and get things back in line right here at the temple?”

So, Jesus stands there in Solomon’s Portico, the temple itself just yards away over his shoulder, and he does tell them—astonishingly—that he’s not merely there to restore the fortunes of Israel but that he and God are one. This humble teacher is the one who will make all things new. He’s the one who will make whole the situation with the temple, whose very purpose it is to connect people to God through redemptive sacrifice. He’s the one who will liberate the people—for Rome only has the power that God allows it to have.

When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life. No one will snatch them out of my hand,” he is telling the politically and religiously powerful in no uncertain terms that he is in control. “My sheep belong to me, and I will care for them now and forever, come what may.”

When things aren’t going well in life, we can forget that we belong to Jesus—our Good Shepherd—and that nothing—no decision, no circumstance, no person, nothing—can snatch us from his care.

Perhaps you’ve had something special that belonged to you, that you took everywhere, and that nothing could snatch from you. When I was an elementary schooler, I had a Teddy Bear that was like that for me. His name was Beary the Bear—super creative, I know. Beary was in bed with me. Beary went in the car with me. Beary even came to school with me every day. I must have had some really patient teachers because he’d sit on my desk everyday, occupying a good quarter of it. Beary belonged to me.

I’m sure most of us know the Pixar film Toy Story by now. A vintage cowboy toy named Woody, played by Tom Hanks, is one of the main characters. Woody has belonged to his boy, Andy Davis, since Andy was in kindergarten. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and he takes it upon himself to be the sheriff to all the other toys. As Andy ages, Woody wonders if he’ll always belong to Andy or if Andy will give him away. There are several of these Toy Story movies, and a lot of their plot centers on Woody’s fear that he won’t belong forever to his person.

I think Woody’s behavior reveals a lot about how we can relate to Jesus. First, sometimes we fear that we’ll be cast aside. We know Woody belongs to Andy. Andy even has written his name on the sole of Woody’s boot. There is no confusion here. Yet, Woody fears that he won’t always belong to Andy. In the first Toy Story, Andy gets a fancy new action figure named Buzz Lightyear. He’s modern. He’s interesting. He has batteries! Throughout the movie, Woody has to learn that there is room in Andy’s household for others, including Buzz, and that just because unexpected others are part of this family does not mean that Woody ceases to belong.

Second, we wonder if we’re in good enough condition to belong to Jesus. We start putting limits on God’s grace for us. You don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know how much I’ve hurt others. You don’t know how much I’ve been hurt. Rather than trusting Jesus in our brokenness, we hide in the corner and think he won’t notice us over there.  In Toy Story 2, Andy accidentally tears Woody’s arm just before going to camp. “Surely this is the end of me,” Woody fears as he lies there, lame on the shelf. Through a series of mishaps, Woody ends up finding out more of his own story. He’s not alone. There are other characters from his TV show, including Jessie his sidekick and Bullseye his horse. Woody still belongs to Andy, and in his woundedness, he finds out that he belongs to others as well.

I could go on about Woody and belonging, but I’ll just point out one more thing. I find it really interesting that Woody comes to have a girlfriend—someone else to belong to—as the movies develop. Her name is Bo Peep, and she’s a shepherd. She cares for sheep, and Woody becomes part of her flock. Now, I doubt Pixar was thinking about John 10 or Psalm 23 when they created this character, but I’d like to think they knew that Woody was a lost sheep needing a home—a place where he could become whole and that no one could ever snatch him away.

We need that sense of belonging too. Brené Brown says, “When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.”

Jesus stands in Solomon’s Portico on Hanukkah. The crowds press him, “Are you the Messiah?” And Jesus, the Good Shepherd, makes a staggering claim that not only is he the one sent to liberate the people from the powers of this world and that he is the one who will make things right between God and them, but also that he is one with God the Father. God’s presence is not tucked away in the Holy of Holies in the Temple just yards away. It’s among the people. It’s available. It’s tangible.

And Jesus tells them and us, “You belong to me.” It’s a beautiful and benevolent belonging. It’s one that makes us whole. It’s a belonging we have because he says we have it, not because we’ve earned it. Nothing can snatch us from his hand. My friends, we belong to Jesus forever. How great is that?

[1] Burge, Gary, The NIV Application Commentary: John, 287-288.

[2] Wright, N. T., John for Everyone: Part One, 155.